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  • Writer's pictureKathleen Choe

The Lone Sunflower

At first it was just a slender green shoot, pushing bravely up through a crack in the sun-baked cement. It was in fact the only glimpse of color in a sea of beige; surrounded by sand, concrete bunkers, blast walls, and camouflage uniforms. The soldier almost crushed it with her boot before side-stepping quickly, stooping down to examine this unlikely discovery in the searing desert of Afghanistan. She closed her eyes for a moment, remembering the gardens of her childhood, lush with lawns and flowers and trees. After a brief examination, the soldier sighed and moved on, certain this fragile life would quickly wither or just as likely be crushed by the boots of another in its current harsh environment, which seemed to have little regard for the value of any living being, whether it be plant, animal or human. She found she could not forget her surprising encounter however, and a week later went back to check, expecting the tender stem would be gone, a thing of her imagination. As she approached the crack in the concrete, preparing herself for disappointment, her mind already scolding her for risking foolish hope in a place full of harshness and hurt, the soldier was surprised to see the beginnings of a proper plant developing from the green stem she had spied the week before. A few sparse leaves drooped from the stem, which was taller and broader than before. It seemed so . . . determined. The soldier glanced about, furtively. Water was a precious commodity on this remote outpost, and not to be wasted. Still, she felt a sense of obligation to nurture this daring attempt at survival. Looking around once more, she discreetly poured the contents of her canteen on the struggling plant, then casually walked on.

After that, the soldier tried to visit the brave little plant as often as she could, smuggling water to nourish it, and protecting it from the wind and careless boots with some chips of concrete salvaged from the blast walls after the Taliban got a little too close to the base for comfort. One morning, as she hurried out with her daily ration of water, she was amazed and delighted to see a bud forming at the tip of what was now a very tall and sturdy stalk. Although the other soldiers in her unit initially teased her about the futility of nurturing the plant, they were also secretly invested in preserving this rare visit from nature, and followed its progress with barely disguised interest. The day the bud burst open into a large and stunning sunflower, even the Battalion Commander stopped by to pay respects, removing his hat and saluting this rare and welcome splash of color surrounded by a drab and dreary sea of cement. The soldier’s sunflower seemed to smile at everyone who passed, a reminder of the resilience required for survival against all odds.

Psychologists define resilience as the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress. Positive adaptations involve developing healthy coping skills such as learning emotional regulation tools, seeking support from appropriate sources, strengthening and deepening one’s connection to self and others, and pursuing avenues of personal growth. These kinds of positive adaptations cannot occur without the existence of supportive relationships and resources. In the absence of these, maladaptive responses occur. When we do not have access to trustworthy, predictable, caring, reliable relationships and resources, we turn to substances, food, self-harm, distractions, destructive behaviors, and even suicide to cope with our overwhelm.

Jewish psychologist, philosopher and author Viktor Frankl survived three years in a Nazi concentration camp only to find that his wife, brother and parents had not been so fortunate. Frankl wrote about his experiences in his famous book, Man’s Search for Meaning, in which he posits that identifying a positive purpose in life builds one’s resilience not only to endure suffering, but to grow through it and find joy. “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any set of circumstances.”

Like the soldier who nurtured the sunflower, Frankl chose hope in the face of loss. He went on to write, “between stimulus and response there is space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

Several weeks ago, I lost my mother-in-law to COVID related complications. Due to the current regulations, no one in her family was allowed to say goodbye in person, or to be with her when she passed. Many of you are facing similar losses – unthinkable, unbearable ones.

Let us choose responses that build our resilience. Let us choose hope. Like the soldier who nurtured her sunflower, let us support those around us, and find those who can encourage us as well. During this time of uncertainty, we need each other more than ever before.

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